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Things I think about while swimming.
by Hope Chernov

First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Winner 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

I swim most days after work, at first because Prescription-Happy Hindu Granny told me to, but now I look forward to it.   The water has become my respite, the soft aqua antidote to my other life, the noisy Kodachrome one, where staying afloat requires more than the flimsy raft with which I’ve been equipped. When I swim, my breath is the only thing, in and out. It doesn’t always stop the thoughts but it slows them down enough so they don’t take over the whole operation. Though sometimes I feel like the thoughts are the only thing I have. Pshaw, Hindu Granny says, Thoughts are overrated. I say, But where would mankind be without thoughts? Happy, she says, tearing the sheet from her little pad and thrusting it at me. Fair enough, I say.

 

Prescription-Happy Hindu Granny was ‘put in my path ’ while completing twelve weeks of what I refer to as my spiritual rejuvenation at an all-inclusive facility. Entry into the program proved difficult; after several attempts that left the acceptance committee unmoved, I upped the ante with my latest effort, Still Life with Stoli and Tranquilizers. That got me in. I graduated with honors, voted least likely to eat Drano when the shitstorm hits by all but two nurses, one of whom sent me back into the world with inspirational parting words.   At your age dumpling, she said, her eyes rheumy and unblinking, It ain’t cute no more. I stared back at her, speechless. She buzzed me out into the sideways sleet and called after me, Get your shit together, dumpling. Next stop is State. That’s the end of the line. You hear? I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt up and walked faster. I did not look back.

 

The facility helped me secure a living wage and an apartment, for which I am grateful. I work as a machinist in a vitamin factory, bringing wellness to the masses one bottle at a time. It’s shift work, dull as dishwater but it keeps me to myself and out of trouble. The apartment is one-fourth of a partially subsidized quad, dingy but adequate, occupied by some other alumni of the facility with whom I have little contact but for my neighbor’s sudden howls of despair in the wee small hours.   The ululating, tribal, shocking, is an effective reminder that I’m not out of the woods, not by a long shot, and might never be. But if I can hold down the job, keep regular with Hindu Granny and eventually get a place with thicker walls, who knows, maybe I can make a go of it.

 

Swimming helps. The smell of chlorine and mildew is so strong in the ladies locker room I can taste it. Puritanical chemical on relentless mission to destroy promiscuous, laughing fungi. The battle rages as I change into my other uniform, a one-piece navy blue racerback, austere, serious. Just wait till I get my goggles and cap on, crazy pale alien reptile lady, the skin on my legs so dry it clings to my pants like Velcro. It’s okay, I’ll be in the water soon.

 

There’s a girl some lockers down from me. She’s twelve, I’m guessing. Here for Marjorie, I’m 97% certain. Her face is wide open and sweet, her thin, lightly freckled arms extending out of a Hello Kitty tankini. She’s untying the drawstring on her pants, these patchwork sweatpant-type pants that look very crafty and comfortable. Nice pants I say. She looks over and says Thanks, I made them. Pleased with herself, spunky. Stay that way, I want to tell her.

 

I check myself in the mirror. Brutal. Legs sallow and dry, like freshly plucked chicken thighs dredged in corn meal and ready for hot grease. Fucking chlorine. This is why I ordered the brushes. Dry brushing my entire body every day from head to toe will yield glowing skin and major benefits to the lymph system or my money back. I have to keep the original packaging is all. The lymph nodes, you’ve got to keep them clear, Prescription-Happy Hindu Granny told me this, or all kinds of things build up in there, so you brush and clear them out and spectacular health awaits. I figure with smooth skin and sparkling lymph nodes, the world is my oyster.

 

On the pool deck I see spunky patchwork pants girl talking to an overgrown man in a chair, or maybe the chair is too small. I give one of her errant brown curls a tug as I pass. She’s mad but when she sees me she smiles. The overgrown man looks at me and gives a slight nod. Her father, I presume. Or her much older lover. Or her father and her much older lover. There’s a name embroidered on his jacket. Gary. Gary’s eyes, almond shaped, Asian almost, they stay with me. I wonder what goes on with Gary, average white guy with Asian eyes, Gary bald on top with dark hair on the sides of his head, Gary with a spunky daughter. Gary looks sad, a little beaten down. We have that in common.

 

I sit at the edge of the pool, my legs dangling in the water. It feels colder than usual. I’m fantasizing about biscuits and gravy when a swarthy, hirsute type in a too-snug Speedo saunters up to the ‘fast’ lane – think Mark Spitz gone to seed – and proceeds to windmill his rotator cuffs into submission. I used to swim ‘fast’ too until Hindu Granny told me to try slowing down.   What’s the rush? Where’s the fire? she says. In my brain, I tell her. That’s what drugs are for, she says.   So I swim ‘medium’ as an exercise in restraint. It’s hard for me as it goes against my nature, but at least it’s not the ‘slow’ lane, which I would rechristen ‘why bother.’ There’s a strawberry-haired lady in there now holding tiny barbells, languidly floating upright across the pool, her pendulous breasts bouncing gently back and forth in unison. It’s like she’s walking on the moon.

 

I dive. It’s always a shock, the stinging slap of cold water on my flailing limbs, but at the first flip turn I hear Marjorie shouting her raspy voiced instructions, and it calms me. Marjorie’s really good with the kids, so good that she can yell at them because she wants them to be better and they know it. She’s what my Dead Real Granny would call a spitfire – pronounced spitfar – lean and wiry, hair the color and texture of straw braided long down her back, coke-bottle eyeglasses. Her skin is very dry. I suppose I could tell her about the body brushing, but I’m not on those terms with Marjorie. We don’t stop to chat.

 

By lap five I’m ravenous. I haven’t eaten today because I’m fasting. Actually what I’m doing is called ‘intermittent starvation,’ which I heard some radio doctor tout as having ‘enormous physical benefits,’ none of which I can recall because I’m so damn hungry. Twice a week I’m supposed to limit myself to 500 calories. I haven’t mentioned this to Hindu Granny because she’ll tell me I’m batshit crazy, but I got very excited about it, again I can’t remember why, though it has something to do with fasting=healthy=happy. All I know is a ‘rustic’ salad of iceberg lettuce and green pepper is what’s for dinner back at the quad, when what I really want is to drive to the damn Red Lobster for clam chowder and oyster crackers.

 

Hindu Granny says I have a bee in my bonnet about the damn Red Lobster. She’s not wrong. I pass it every day on the way to the pool.   There’s a portable sign with changeable letters at the parking lot entrance, which lately reads Hurry in for the One and Only Endless Shrimp! $9.95 +tax. See, this is the kind of thing that can really fuck with me. Endless, like, infinity? How is it possible? Why is it possible? I mean, the shrimp – the endless shrimp – they’re coming from the ocean presumably, but the ocean is drying up, we know this, this is common knowledge, not to mention the fact that there’s a shortage of clean drinking water in the world and it’s serious. It’s a crisis. I mean, here I am trying to up my intake of water to eight glasses a day because I read that you should drink enough so that your urine is clear, and one day I peed and it was really yellow, like almost green, and I immediately started drinking more water after that. Turns out I had eaten asparagus, which I later learned can turn your pee greenish- yellow, okay false alarm, but still, I figure drinking more water can only help matters. But nowadays, you go to a restaurant and sit down and they don’t even give you a nice cold glass of water anymore, you have to ask for it, and even then it’s probably full of lead and mercury and who knows what else, but why think about that when there’s more pressing issues at stake, like eating shrimp until you explode. I find the whole thing very weird and disturbing, and Hindu Granny doesn’t give a shit, she’s sitting across from me dumbstruck, her eyelids at half-mast. I suspect she may be dozing off until I notice her fingers moving along the curved trunk of a little ceramic Ganesha. Finally she says, Alright, calm down already. Calm down? I say. Have you heard a word I’ve said? I have, she says. I say, Well what do you think? She says, I think you’ve got bigger problems than endless bloody shrimp.   Fair enough, I say. Though if we were talking about endless bloody cow I bet she’d be eating pharmaceuticals by the fistful.

 

Starting to chill out. Still hungry, less itchy. Finding my rhythm. There are times in the pool when the thoughts slow down and I get past the fatigue and my muscles relax, and the water feels like it’s taking me along and my limbs are moving as if I’m not even controlling them, and all I have to do is breathe. And in that moment I think maybe Hindu Granny does know what she’s talking about, that maybe I can do this life thing, I can do life. Though it sticks in my craw that she won’t take my insurance, some ‘out of network’ doublespeak, so I pay her $40 cash, plus free vitamins. Western poppycock, she mutters, rolling the bottle into her drawer that locks with a skeleton key.

 

It’s raining as I pass the damn Red Lobster on the drive home. Don’t. Do not. That goddamn shrimp, it won’t let me live. I turn around and pull into the parking lot. A little information – knowledge is power – then I can let it go. It’s hard to find a parking spot; inside, the lobby is packed with people lining up for endless shrimp even in this shit weather. The hostess, a college girl with absurdly shiny blonde hair is standing behind a podium making marks in a big book. I say Excuse me, and without looking up she says Table for one? No, I say. Take out? she says. Actually, I say, can I ask about the endless shrimp? I’m sorry, she says, the endless shrimp is for dine-in only but I can seat you right away at a one-top if you’d like, and I say No thanks, I’d just like to ask a few questions and she says, I’m sorry, we are really busy, can you give me a sec? Okay, I say, I’ll wait, and also you know what, I’ll take some clam chowder to go. She says Manhattan or New England? I say the white kind, New England, and she says Have a seat and I’ll call you when it’s ready. I’m compelled to clarify that Manhattan clam chowder is technically not chowder, but I have bigger fish to fry, so to speak. Anyway, Hindu Granny would be proud of my restraint.

 

I wait by the lobster tank. Six extremely large, young men wearing identical football jerseys lumber in, shaking themselves off like wet dogs. I know why they’re here. It ain’t for the salad bar. I look at the lobsters, piled on top of each other, their claws bound together with rubber bands. One sits off to the side alone, staring at me with his little black eyes. I think of Gary sitting at the pool, an overgrown lobster too big for his tank. The hostess says Knight party of 3, Knight party of 3 into a microphone, at which point a rawboned, gray woman and a paunchy, ash blond manchild rise solemnly from a banquette. A purse is dropped and picked up with great effort. The woman says Let’s go to an older gentleman next to her, Mr. Knight I presume, who follows behind, wan, resigned. By the looks of them I predict Mrs. Knight will start with the shrimp fra diavolo, Manboy will have shrimp scampi and halfway through the meal they’ll trade plates, then each order something different – because it’s endless! –maybe Cajun shrimp or shrimp Alfredo, and halfway through that they’ll trade off again, and they’ll keep doing that until Mrs. Knight feels like she’s gotten her money’s worth or Manboy pukes, whichever comes first. Mr. Knight will order flounder just to be a shit disturber. This poor lobster. He’s lonely. He needs a friend.

 

I leave without my chowder.

 

Driving home, I was distracted. Gary’s eyes were in my head. The rain evaporated into thick, black fog, which made for an eerie, perilous ride. I arrived shaken and starving at the quad, only to discover a head of limp, brown lettuce and a shrunken, oddly shaped green pepper that was robust by comparison. Discouraged, I went to bed. I fell asleep quickly but woke up an hour or two later, which lately has become the regular. Water clanged violently through the radiator. My neighbor was howling. I considered making herbal tea, but masturbated instead. Dead end. Fucking meds. Then I tried to become very still and empty my mind of all thoughts, which Hindu Granny says helps her fall asleep. She also gave me some Ambien but I refuse to take it on the grounds that she’s prescription happy and sabotaging my already tenuous efforts to live a pharmaceutical-free life. Lying there, it felt impossible to not think any thoughts, but she said that would happen and not to worry because it’s normal and the thoughts eventually go away, you just have to watch them come and go. Howling. Fuck it, maybe I will take an Ambien.

 

The alarm goes off at 4. Rise and shine. Get out of bed, shuffle onto cold kitchen linoleum and switch on buzzing fluorescent light. Line up meds, fill one full glass of water, do I really need meds, no I don’t, yes I do, there’s the rub, I take them and I feel like I don’t need them but that means they’re working. Repeat, that means they’re working. Swallow meds with residual conflict. Get dressed, go out in damp, cold, too-early darkness, start shitty car which turns over weakly and sputters out, restart shitty car, pray shitty car starts, lament not having not-shitty car, lament terrible life without means to buy not-shitty car, shitty car turns over, give grudging thanks to shitty car. Drive to work, my shift starts at 5 and ends at 2 though I stay till 3, the overtime helps and nobody seems to notice. Lately I’ve been picking up weekend shifts too, which Hindu Granny frowns upon. She thinks I need to get out more and ‘interact with the world,’ behaviors I deem to be overrated. I punch in, slip on blue scrubs and wrestle into latex gloves, make like I’m prepping for surgery. I greet Stu out on the floor, he’s on, ready to shit vitamins by the 60 count. I’ve been advised to take good care of my machine, my machine is my friend, and I agree, though I think Stu takes better care of me. He never makes a mistake. We get into a rhythm together, no words to get in the way, just his grinding gears and the tablets tumbling into plastic containers, the sound reminds me of my Dead Real Granny pouring beans into a cast iron pot to soak.

 

Later, at the pool, I see Gary sitting on the deck, all jutting limbs and acute angles shoved into in his chair. He sees me and gives a little hint of a smile with those sad, almond shaped eyes. I feel the fire ignite in my brain. Distress flare. Danger. Stay away. Or, maybe not. Maybe not something bad. Maybe something good, something happy, like bright starlight, guiding me, telling me that there’s some connection, some frequency detectable only to Gary and me. Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe spunky patchwork girl needs a stepmom. Maybe that’s why they were put in my path. I swim laps in the ‘medium’ lane and think about how I can make Gary my friend. Then I think about what it would be like to kiss Gary. Then I think about what it would be like to have his cock in my mouth, like what if I just got out of the water and went over to him and got on my knees and sucked his cock. I wonder if he’d let me. I’d probably lose my pool privileges. So then I think about what I can say to Gary, maybe something like Hi I’ve seen you here before, would you want to meet for lunch or something? And I could suggest the Red Lobster, not for endless shrimp but maybe for one of the lunch specials, which I hear are good. Maybe Gary needs a friend, a real friend. Maybe that Hindu Granny is a genius.

 

I’m in my street clothes when Gary’s daughter comes into the locker room. I must act. Carpe diem. I wait just outside the door, then follow her down a long hallway to a sort of café, a kiosk, where people drink coffee and Gatorade and work on laptops. Gary is sitting alone at a small table, sipping from a Styrofoam cup and reading a thick book. He reads; somehow this bodes well. His daughter joins him and he closes the book. I take a step toward them then hesitate, my heart throbbing wildly in my throat. I conjure the image of the three of us laughing and enjoying refreshments together; buoyed, I take a breath and approach. Hi, I say, louder than intended. His daughter jumps a little; I think I startled her. Gary looks at me, then to her, then back to me again and nods, almost imperceptibly. I search his eyes for a trace of warmth or familiarity, but they remain distant, maybe a little suspicious. Can I help you? he says. Is your name Garrett? I say, still too loud, in a voice that makes me think of the hostess at the Red Lobster talking into the microphone. I repeat, Is your name Garrett? pretending that I hadn’t already asked. My name’s Gary, he says. Oh, I say, Sorry, you look like someone I know. His eyes dart around the room and back to his daughter, and he leans into her and says something that I can’t hear. She nods silently. After a moment I say Is this your daughter? Yes, he says. She’s quite the swimmer, I say. I turn to her and say I really like those pants you made, those patchwork pants?   I think it’s really impressive that you made them yourself, something so creative and practical. She smiles weakly without looking at me. I go on, You sewed them, right? My Granny used to sew. It’s a really good skill to have. Then she asks her father if she can get a drink, and she leaves, and it’s just Gary and me. His long fingers are flitting back and forth along the cover of his book, which I notice is Moby Dick. Hey, call me Ishmael, I say. Then, Are you sure your name isn’t Garrett? Finally he looks straight at me and says, What do you want? The chatter around us stops. I feel intense heat rise in my face and neck, and suddenly none of it is real, I’m in a play and so is Gary, and the café people are the audience, only I don’t know what I’m supposed to say next. Then slowly, Gary stands. His cheeks are flushed. The corner of his mouth twitches a little. What do you want? he repeats, louder. I want to be your friend, I say, in a voice I don’t recognize, small, like a girl. He leans in towards me, so close that for a moment I think he might kiss me. Quietly he says, I don’t know who you are, okay? So stay away from me, and stay the hell away from my daughter. Do you understand? I smell peppermint. His eyes, strange and hard now, stay locked with mine. Yes, I understand. Slowly he sits down and opens his book. I take this as my cue to exit.

 

The sign for endless shrimp is gone. It now says Join the Fresh Catch Club Today! Inside, a different, not so shiny hostess says Table for one? What happened to the endless shrimp? I say. Excuse me? she says. Oh sorry, that ended. I say, But it’s endless. Ha ha, she says, forced. I’m serious, I say. Oh, she says, and then slower and a little louder, Right, that promotion ended, but you can still order any shrimp item off the menu à la carte, and I say I don’t think you understand, I’m asking what happened to the endless shrimp? Um, she says, it ended? I stare back at her. Then she says One moment, I’ll get the manager. I wait by the lobster tank. I see the one who was staring at me, I recognize his little purple elastics. This is the end of the line for him. How long does he have to wait like that, with his claws bound shut? It’s goddamn cruel. The hostess returns with the manager, who has a ruddy face and dead eyes and a crew cut and wears a thin knitted tie. He says Can I help you, I understand you have a question, and I say Yes I do, I would like to know what happened to the endless shrimp. And the manager says, Well that promotion has ended, and I interrupt him, I say, I know I can order shrimp off the menu à la carte, I know that, what I am asking you is what happened to them? Ma’am, he says, I’m not sure I understand your question. I’m thinking, Shit, dumbass, what don’t you understand? Then he hands me a business card and says Ma’am, that promotion has ended, I’m very sorry about that, but feel free to call the number on this card, this is the regional manager who will be happy to answer any questions you may have. I say, So this person knows what happened to the shrimp? You’re telling me if I call this number, this person will be able to tell me what happened to the endless shrimp now that your little promotion has ended? Yes, Ma’am, he says, that is correct. I think you’re bullshitting me, I say. I do, I think you’re bullshitting me, you and your hair and your tie, I don’t think you or this regional motherfucker or anybody knows what happened to the shrimp. Ma’am, the manager says, I’m going to have to ask you to leave now. Fine, I say, nevermind. You people obviously cannot help me. I turn to go, and there he is again, the lobster, staring right at me. I thrust my arm in the water, pull him out and turn to the manager and hostess, holding him above my head. This lobster needs a friend, I say. A real friend. Do you understand? The hostess is biting her lip. The manager picks up the phone. My sleeve is soaked up to my armpit, foul smelling tank water is dripping down the side of my body and into the waist of my jeans. People are looking over now, and everything gets very still. The manager is talking quietly into the phone. This is the end of the line, dumpling. You hear? It ain’t cute no more.

 

I drive to the pool. Breathe, in and out. In the parking lot I call Hindu Granny. It goes straight to voice mail. I leave a message. FUCKING INDIAN WHORE, WHAT THE FUCK GOOD ARE YOU. I rifle through my purse until I find the little plastic bottle, untwist the cap and toss the contents out the car window. Pills scatter like orange-red tadpoles across an asphalt sea.

 

The woman at the front desk says The pool is closing in 15 minutes. Okay great, I say. I change and head up to the deck, which is empty except for Marjorie. She’s moving a wheelchair to the edge of the far lane. Nearby, a head of thick, black ringlets bobs gently on the water’s surface. I hear a noise that reminds me of Stu. Slowly the head begins to rise, followed by a thin, pale white torso, that of a young man. The contraption that lifts him stops with a loud, rusty echo, and the young man hovers waist deep in the gurgling water. His head, still wobbling unsteadily, becomes too heavy for his delicate neck and slumps. His mouth hangs open. I think of Jesus on the cross. Marjorie goes to him and tosses his lifeless arms around her shoulders, and with considerable effort, hoists him up and into the wheelchair. She talks softly to him as she dries him with a towel. She sees me and gives a nod. I dive into the ‘fast’ lane and freestyle like something’s chasing me.

 

Tell me something. Tell you what. Anything. Tell me something about when you were young. Don’t think she said Just talk. Say whatever comes to mind. Okay. My first slow dance. Good, she said. Go on. The junior high social. A boy I’d never seen before was standing alone with his hands in his pockets by the gymnasium double doors. He was tall and skinny. His head was bowed but I could see his eyes peering over at me. I looked back at him, just long enough so he knew that it was okay to come. He slowly walked over and held out his hand. My name’s Garrett, he said. He led me to the dance floor. Boz Scaggs was singing about looking at the moon and feeling blue, and under a blue light Garrett and I began to sway awkwardly. As the song went on, we relaxed. He drew me closer, his hands on my waist, and I let my fingers creep ever so slightly up the back of his neck, because I had seen a lady on television do that and it seemed like the right thing to do. We swayed like that for a while, and he never took his eyes off me. His sad, almond shaped eyes. When the song ended, the lights in the gymnasium came on, sudden and bright. The dance was over. I went to get my purse, I had left it on a chair, and when I came back, Garrett was gone. I searched for him in the throng of people moving toward the exit – I wanted to at least say goodbye – but I couldn’t find him. I waited until most of the gym had cleared out, I thought that maybe he was somewhere too, waiting to say goodbye to me, but it was as if he vanished into thin air. I looked for him the next day in school, and in the days that followed, scanning hallways, the lunchroom, the auditorium. I never saw him. I began to wonder if I had imagined him, if the slow dance really happened. Eventually, I stopped looking and forgot about him. But once in a while he pops into my head and I wonder what happened to him. Garrett and his sad eyes. Now the only eyes gazing upon me are Hindu Granny’s brown, heavy-lidded orbs. They look like they hold the secrets of the universe. You need a friend, she said. I have a friend, I said. Not Stu, she said, a real friend. You’re my friend, I said. I am most certainly not your friend, she said in a voice that made my eyes sting. I’m too fucked up to have a friend, I said. My dear child, said Hindu Granny gently, nobody in this life is too fucked up to have a friend.

 

A bell like an alarm rings out. The pool is closing. I go to the locker room and shower. The warm water feels good on my dry, goose-pimpled skin. I haven’t noticed much of a difference since I started using the brushes, but they say you have to do it for a while, maybe a month or more before you see results. Patience, says Hindu Granny with downward patting hands. Patience, my dear child.

 

Marjorie is standing in the locker room, brushing her long hair. She wears a hunter green polo shirt tucked into pleated khakis with a thin, braided belt, very crisp and clean. She says Hello. I say Hello. After a few moments she says, Your freestyle is beautiful to watch. I was so taken aback, I actually felt myself blush. Thanks, I say. You’ve been swimming a long time, she says. I swam in high school, I say, but I’m just now getting back to it. You’re a natural, she says. She continues brushing her hair, then pulls it back and twists it into a bun that sits at the nape of her neck.   She closes her locker, picks up her bag and says Well, goodnight. Goodnight, I say.

 

I’m on my hands and knees in the parking lot. This feels like a low point. I hear a gentle, raspy voice behind me say Did you lose something? Marjorie. I lost some pills, I say. Actually, I threw them out the window. It’s so dumb. She says Can I help? and before I can protest she’s down on the ground groping with me. Between us we find three pills intact. We get up and I see the knees of her khakis are dirty. I feel bad, so I ask Marjorie if she knows where to get a cup of coffee, and would she like to join me. There’s a diner not far from here she says. Why don’t you follow me. Okay, I say, I’ll follow you.

 

I have coffee. Marjorie has cherry pie à la mode. I sit across from her, examining her lined face, her pale, hazel eyes made larger by the thick lenses of her glasses. Several course white hairs sprout from her upper lip. She eats methodically, making sure that pie and ice cream are represented equally in each spoonful. Then she wipes her mouth with a napkin, and with finality slides her plate aside and rests her folded hands on the table. Tell me your life story, she says. I laugh. Sip my coffee. She looks at me like she’s considering something, her face disconcertingly serene. I’m dealing with some issues right now, is the only thing I can think to say. I look away so she doesn’t see a tear escape the corner of my eye. The waitress appears with more coffee. I peel the top off a little plastic container of cream and pour it into my cup, slowly stirring. I can feel Marjorie’s eyes on me. We sit for a while longer, not saying much, then I pay the check and we leave.

 

Thank you for the pie, Marjorie says in the parking lot. Thanks for helping me find my meds, I say. Then she says, I’ve been looking for someone to help me out at the pool, teaching the kids. Would you be interested? Oh, I don’t know, I say, feeling like I could cry again, so stupid and self-conscious. If Hindu Granny were here she’d be rolling her eyes in exasperation. Sorry, I say, inexplicably, and Marjorie just smiles. Then, she lays a gentle hand on my shoulder and says You know, I’ve been working with kids for a long time, and I’ll let you in on a secret. It helps to be a little crazy. Goodnight she says, and drives off.

 

The next day I go to see Hindu Granny. Well, well, she says. I apologize for chucking my meds, for the rude voice mail. Pshaw, she says with a wave of her hand. You know, my mother-in-law called me a whore when I married her son. But she grew to love me, rest her soul. I talk for some time while Hindu Granny listens. When I’m through she says nothing, just takes the small pad and pen from her desk drawer. I mention coffee with Marjorie as she writes. Sounds maybe like a friend, she says. She tears the paper from the pad and hands it to me. Maybe, I say.

 

I drive to the pool. In the locker room, a group of girls wearing matching red bathing suits chatter like little birds. Gary’s daughter is among them. She sees me, I think she might have smiled but I look away before our eyes can meet. I change and listen to snippets of conversation floating around me. A cute boy, an exam, shampoo that smells like green apples. Then I hear her voice above the others, I can’t swim without my goggles. I look over. She’s upset. The other girls search in vain for spares. Here, I say. I take a pair from my bag and hold them out to her. She says, But how will I get them back to you? Keep them, I say. Really? she says. Keep them, I say, I have extras. Her face brightens. Thank you, she says, accepting them. You’re welcome, I say. The sound of lockers slamming shut and in a flash the girls vanish, their sunny voices echoing softly in my ears.

 

On the deck, Marjorie is standing at the far lane of the pool, signaling the red-suited girls to dive in, one after the other. Behind her people sit in stands and watch. Gary is there, Moby Dick in his lap. I stand at the water’s edge and consider the three empty lanes before me. I adjust my goggles and cap. Finally, I dive into the ‘slow’ lane. I was tired at first and felt like I wouldn’t go very long. Slowing down is a lot harder than it looks. But eventually I found my rhythm and relaxed, and it was as if the water was guiding me, my limbs moving in perfect harmony and without effort, and all I had to do was breathe.

Tilt-A-Whirl
by Rachel Furey

Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

It’s just you in the Tilt-A-Whirl cart until Jimmy Miller slips in beside you. He reeks of cigarette smoke, and you want to grind an elbow into his stomach and tell him to find another cart. But the handlebar clicks shut and the ride starts up and Jimmy’s sitting there beside you smiling underneath his baseball cap, his camo pants brushing against your basketball shorts.

On a different day, this might be a good thing. He’s one of the few guys in school as tall as you. You respect that he doesn’t try too hard, that his hair is messy, that he’s almost always wearing camo pants, not giving a shit that some people call him Camo. He’s an expert shot—always brings down a deer on the first day of the season. You appreciate that kind of efficiency.

But you came here to be alone—came because all that spinning is your way of slowing down the swirl of thoughts in your head. Your cart hasn’t started moving yet, and Jimmy reaches over and places a hand on your knee. His palm is hot, damp, and it stings your floor-burned knee. You push his hand off.

Your cart teeters back and forth, then takes its first full spin. Your body presses into the back of the cart. Jimmy pushes his hands into his pockets and stares at you as if to say, See, now I have my hands contained. Your knees are no longer in danger. Most guys wouldn’t dare to sit beside you. Most guys think you are more guy than girl.

You’re about to tell him his hands don’t have to stay in his pockets—they just have to stay away from you—when your cart turns again. More slowly this time. It doesn’t seem fair. The cart beside yours is spinning like crazy. You catch flashes of three middle school girls in jean shorts and tank tops. They squeeze the handlebar and laugh so hard one of them has spit running down her chin. You used to laugh on this ride. In fact, you probably laughed the last time you were on it.

“What the fuck is wrong with our cart,” you say to Jimmy. He stares at you hard, like he’s looking at you through the sight in his rifle. He has hazel eyes. You never noticed that before.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asks.

You squeeze the handlebar. It’s sticky and you wonder what pudgy, popsicle-eating kid sat there before you. You want to be that kid. Ten again. Not six feet tall. Not a licensed, driving adult.

“My dog died,” you say. You time the words just right. Your cart makes its biggest turn yet, and he can’t say a word.

You stare down at your hands. There’s a spot of blood on your thumbnail that you missed when washing your hands. You found it when drying and couldn’t soap again. It seemed fitting that you couldn’t wash all of her away—that a part of Assassin would remain on you. She’d earned her name by hunting groundhogs as a puppy. Even when she was the same size as them, she could kill a couple every week. At the time you were seven and also loved that the word ass was in Assassin twice.

“What kind of dog,” Jimmy asks.

“I’d have to show you a picture,” you say. You had one of those mutts that was part everything. Long ears and short tail. Black, brown, gray, and white hair. Short in some places, long in others. You used to get a kick out of going down to the dog park and telling people Assassin was sixty percent St. Bernard or thirty percent greyhound despite the fact the dog was about two feet tall. You had the swagger to make people believe just about anything.

Your cart spins again. Hard. Three times in a row. You close your eyes. This is what you came for. This moment when your body is one with the seat. You thought this motion might make you forget the morning. But you can still feel Assassin’s warm, wet fur in your palms. You squeeze the handlebar more tightly and her fur is still there.

Your cart slows and you wait for another hard turn, but the ride is slowing altogether. If Jimmy weren’t sitting beside you, you’d curse at the ride operator—tell him to go for another round. Instead, you scoot farther from Jimmy. As soon as the ride stops, you crank open the handlebar and scuttle out.

Jimmy follows you. “Hey,” he says. “Can I get you something to eat?”

You almost tell him to fuck off, then you remember that he is not seeing the same images you have been seeing for the past hour. He wasn’t there on your road to see Assassin’s head turned at an angle so horrific that you had to sit on the pavement a minute before crawling forward. He didn’t pick the dog up and hold her in his arms, didn’t press his neck against the wet snout, hoping to feel a pant of warm air again his skin. He didn’t stand in the backyard with the dog in his arms, its dampness transferring to his T-shirt, while he decided where to bury her.

You hadn’t buried Assassin. Not yet. You needed to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl first. You’d merely picked out the spot, which you believed to be beside the Barbie doll your Aunt Evelyn gave you for your eighth birthday. Barbie was tall like you, but there were no other striking resemblances. With your dad’s power sander, you sanded off her breasts. Then you dissembled her, limb by limb. You took her parts to school in a paper bag—a decision that earned you a week of after-school detention and an order from your dad to either put the doll back together or throw her away. Instead, you buried her. Assassin once dug Barbie up and you had to bury her once more, deeper.

“I’m not hungry,” you tell Jimmy.

“We could ride the train,” he says.

“You mean the dinky kid train?”

“Yep.” He takes a step closer to you. He pulls his hands out of his pockets and keeps them at his sides. “When my little brother gets upset, I take him on the train. It’s calming.”

“Do I look like a little kid to you?”

He shakes his head. “Just a suggestion. That’s all.” He turns like he might leave.

“Fine,” you say.

There’s not a line for the train. That’s one upside to a boring ride. The two of you climb into one of the front cars. They’re made for kids and your knees press against the warm metal. Your floor burn stings again. The kids are slow to load because they’re yammering about the snow cone man being out of watermelon and Mom only allowing one bag of cotton candy. You shift in the tiny seat, eager to be in motion again. Jimmy taps his fingers against his knees. He looks at you, and you think he might say something, but he doesn’t.

Finally, the train starts up. It rattles on the tracks, and vibrations shoot up your feet. The driver pulls a cord, activating an annoying horn that the children cheer for and Jimmy laughs at. The horn blows one more time and you’re back in that scene from an hour ago, the garbage truck blowing its horn. Once. Twice. Three times. You got up off the couch on the third and ran outside to find Assassin.

Your basketball shorts don’t have pockets in them. You wish they did because you don’t know what to do with your hands. The train doesn’t have a handlebar like the Tilt-A-Whirl. You squeeze your fingers into fists and let them bounce up and down on your thighs. You glance up ahead. Gray squirrels are playing chicken with the train. Darting back and forth across the track, their furry tails flitting up and down. On a different day, this might be funny. On a different day, you might root for the train to clip one. Today, you pound your fists into your thighs harder.

The train clatters along, then hits a tunnel. It’s cool and dark and you let yourself go for a moment. You stop pounding your thighs. You relax your face. You take a deep breath, and on the release, you feel something catch in your throat. In the movies people cry one tear at a time, but when the train comes out from under the tunnel and back into bright sun again, your face is wet. You tilt your head away from Jimmy and stare at the grassy hill to your left.

Jimmy does the nicest thing he can. He takes off his baseball cap and places it on your head. He punches the bill down low and then gives you a minute.

You wipe your face. You hold your elbows out to your sides in a way that suggests strength. “It’s my fault,” you say. “I let the dog out. I forgot it was garbage day. The garbage truck was her favorite.” She’d pace up and down the road for an hour after it had gone through, her nose pressed to pavement as if she could absorb each of the smells.

“Okay,” he says. One word. That’s it.

You ease the bill of the hat up and look at him. He meets your glance. “I flipped the trash man off like it was his fault,” you say, “but it wasn’t.”

“To be fair,” Jimmy says, “it was partially his fault. And partially the dog’s fault.”

You shake your head. “No, it wasn’t Assassin’s fault.”

“Wow.” He gazes out into the park. “That’s one hell of a name.”

You want to tell him the part about the word ass being in there twice, but it feels silly now.

He reaches for your knee, then remembers and pulls his hand back. “According to my brother, all dogs go to heaven.”

“Please,” you say, “no clichés.”

“Sure.”

You glance up ahead. Squirrels are still scrambling over the tracks. “This isn’t really a calming ride,” you say.

“Sorry. It was either this or the dunk tank.”

You’re not sure if he’s joking. Maybe you could go for a dip in the dunk tank. All that cold water. A moment without air.

The squirrels are still playing chicken. You swear one had its tail nipped by the train. You can’t watch anymore. You scoot toward the edge of the seat, then you tilt to the side and let yourself fall. You thud against grass, the fall not as hard or satisfying as you expected. But you are on a hill. You let gravity take you. Let yourself roll. Let yourself be ten again, the world circling around you the way you wanted it to on the Tilt-A-Whirl. It’s all warm grass and soft dirt.

Until a chip bag rustles under your thigh. A rock under your hip. Geese shit against your forearm. You pull your arms away from your sides to slow yourself down. The park and the hill and the train are all spinning, but you can make out Jimmy rolling toward you. You reach a hand toward him. You want him to be the one to stop the spinning.